Norton of Morton

Read a new instalment of Norton of Morton every Saturday at 4 o'clock

Saturday 2 March 2019

On film: The League of Gentlemen

In which G.M. Norton follows Jack Hawkins on a classic crime caper.

I do love my British films from the 1950s and 60s. One of my particular favourites is The League of Gentlemen (not to be confused with the comedy show of the same name).

Released in 1960, it has a strong cast made up of Jack Hawkins, who first appears coming out of a manhole, dressed in a dinner suit. Very James Bond (of course, this film pre-dates Dr No by a couple of years).

Hawkins plays the main character, a retired colonel called Hyde to gruff perfection. Annoyed that he's been pensioned off after 25 years loyal service in the military, he puts his meticulous planning skills to good use by plotting a daring million-pound bank robbery.

In order order to carry out the robbery, Hyde needs a team of experts, and who better than former military men? He carefully identifies seven former army officers to help put his plan into action, who have all fallen on hard times for one reason or another.

Hyde sends a mysterious invitation to each officer summoning them to the Cafe Royal. Also enclosed with the anonymous invite is a cut up bank note (with a promise they'll receive the missing half if they turn up) and a copy of a book called The Golden Fleece, which inspired Hyde to dream up the robbery.

Nigel Patrick is Major Race, a small time gambler and crook. Rather wonderfully, he calls everybody 'old darling'.

Bryan Forbes who both wrote and acted in this film is a married gigolo  and ivory tinkler in clubs.

Terence Alexander is a cuckolded husband. Interestingly, his wife is played by Nanette Newman who would go on to marry Bryan Forbes in real life. Surrounded by bubbles, this experience would also come in handy for future advertisements for Fairy Liquid.

Richard Attenborough plays the spivvy Lexy, a con-artist with an eye for the ladies and a genius with electronics.

Roger Livesey is Padre, who has seemingly found God after being kicked out of the army for gross indecency (which at the time, usually meant homosexual activities).

Kieron Moore is Captain Stevens who is being blackmailed - it's heavily suggested that this is for being gay.

And finally, Norman Bird plays the now teetotal Captain Weaver, who left the army after his drunkenness contributed to the deaths of officers under his command.

My favourite scene is the lunch at the hotel. Arriving late, Major Race steals the scene, dropping untold number of 'old darlings' and even having the cheek to criticise the choice of fizz.

Following these introductions and banding together as one, then its onto the action.

The gentlemanly scallywags soon find themselves taking to the regimental regime laid out by Hyde and the planning is good fun.

As they need to get their hands on weapons and the like, they conduct a raid on an army barracks and cleverly pin the blame on the IRA. In order to provide a distraction while the supplies are being stolen, Padre poses as a Brigadier to investigate a complaint about the army food.

This leads to my other favourite moment when after sampling the below par food in the kitchens, the Brigadier enters the mess hall and questions a private about the army slop. All the private can offer is that food "sort of tastes like they've messed it about, like." Much to the obvious displeasure of the private's senior officers.

After pulling off this little raid, the gang are in good spirits and really start to enjoy having a purpose once again.

The actual robbery is over relatively quickly, but it builds up to it nicely and there's a definite menace to the gang as they carry don gas masks and are armed with guns.

But will the League of Gentlemen get away with it? Will crime pay for this band of rogues? Well, although I would have liked them to have succeeded, I'm afraid they never could. At the time, no film could ever show a criminal benefitting from crime. However, it's a fitting ending, made even better by the unexpected visit from an ex-Army chum of Hyde's. Marvellous stuff.

Nigel Patrick would tell you, old darling, that if you enjoy old crime capers, this is one of the greats. Just look at the expressions from Jack Hawkins as he slowly accepts that the game is up. He was one of my grandfather's favourite actors, and I can see why. This army chum, Bunny, is fantastic too - he reminds me of Jolyon Wagg from Tintin.

G.M. Norton
Protagonist of 'Norton of Morton'

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